Saturday, April 07, 2007

Of Ships of State, riverboat races, and the price of meaningless victories.

I'm no fan of big government, so the siren song of Thatcherism seduced me for a while - back when the Iron Lady was still in office and Ronald Reagan was best buddies with her and "Lyin' Brian" Mulroney of Canada.

Both Commonwealth leaders were allowed to give both nations a solid dose of Conservative medicine and then shown the door. They did not achieve the cult status Regan has, and yet, I believe both will be shown in the historical view to have done more for their nations - and for less personal reward - than Reagen or any of his intellectual heirs. And I don't mean individually; I mean, in toto.

The Parliamentary tradition has certain strengths - and one of those is sort of a genetic memory of why it came to be and in the United Kingdom, especially, what happens when it is set aside in the name of expediency and a "Strong Executive."

All governments are a system of checks and balances, and one of it's most important roles is to serve as a check on the powerful, both those who have great power, and those who would like to have great power. It is a means of guiding and advising those who desire to wield power, to keep them in check and working for the benefit of all, rather than establishing their own little individual warring fiefdoms.

In our particular form of government, the tradition - though somewhat inchoate - is for citizens to seek out those who, like George Bush and Dick Cheney need power like they need air, and then hold them accountable for using it well by means well short of violence. while explicitly stipulating that the citizens hold that ultimate right at need. That's your Second Amendment, right there.

Those who try to subvert those checks in the name of some sort of "victory" are like those riverboat captains who'd put a brick on the safety valve in order to win a race. Sometimes the boiler will hold and sometimes it won't, leading to the conversion of a transitory victory into a permanent last place finish.

When the boiler of the ship of state is starting to spit rivets, prudent passengers seek to remove the brick.

Our system of checks and balances was set up to ensure that no single person was likely able to concentrate enough power to overcome the interests of competitors seeking to concentrate power, so that, in order to maintain their basis of power and defend it against the encroachments of others, they must perforce actually do their jobs and do them well.

The admiration I have for the cynical wisdom of our Founders seems to increase every day.
And it is a system that, by and large, worked well enough until the unholy alliance of neocon and theocon emerged to subvert the government itself in the name of concentrating power for the sake of ... well, on that, I suspect there are significant disagreements, set aside "for later."

But what has emerged from both neocon and theocon philosophies put into action is a vast contempt for government, clad in a desire for limited government. It's easy to be fooled by this, for everyone has an idea about how government might be vastly improved with a bit of pruning. But the mechanisms of government, the number of people and the dollars spent have not decreased, and these institutions have become more intrusive and less respectful of the citizenry.

Tom Teepen: Contempt for government - "Item: A meeting was set up by the staff of Karl Rove, Bush's political enforcer, to point out to contractors who do business with the General Services Administration, just which Republican House and Senate seats look especially needy in the run-up to the elections next year. A suspicious mind might wonder if the administration was perhaps, just maybe, trying to shake down the contractors on behalf of the only endangered species this White House cares about."
Tip o' the hat to reader John for this one, and it's just one of many examples given in this editorial.

One hopes that those GSA contractors think hard about the maxim about "Danegeld." If you pay it, you can never get rid of the Dane.

I Am Responsible For My Own ActionsIt's not government the Republican leadership objects to, so long as they are doing the governing. It's the aspect of accountability for the means of gaining power and the usage of that power that they find odious, as well as the idea that with great power comes great responsibility.

It's like drunk drivers, who used to have the expectation that being drunk was actually a defense against charges of vehicular manslaughter.

What they object to any expectation of self-government on their part. If one wishes to illustrate this, it's simple enough to point to any of hundreds and thousands of Bushies and fellow travelers who are all in favor of laws and regulations and restrictions on other people - so long as there's no expectation that any such restrictions are mutual.

There is a sense of arrogant entitlement to the "right" to act and speak in ways offensive and indeed harmful to others without accountability, and this is the antithesis of all Libertarian and classic conservative thought, where great weight is placed on personal responsibility and personal ethical behavior even when the cameras are pointed at someone else.

This ethos is vital to small and effective government - indeed, it's vital to any efficient system. Just ask Warren Buffet; it's how he runs his business. He hires trustworthy people and then trusts them, rewarding them according to their performance. It's not exactly a novel idea, but of course, it requires a certain measure of self-respect. In order to trust others, I have found, first one has to be trustworthy.

Those who are not trustworthy cannot imagine that those who can be trusted could be anything other than fools to be exploited. As a result, they waste time and resources armoring the system against - well, themselves while concealing their own systemic abuses, consequently making it unresponsive to anyone seeking honest, transparent access to it.

I am a Libertarian and my beliefs require me to be responsible for any aspect of my life and individual liberty I'm unwilling to delegate. At the same time I embrace my right and responsibility of myself and others to donate any amount of power they are incapable of or unwilling to use responsibly and well - with the expectation of a fair return on that investment.

The rules for money are the same as for any other form of power, for money is simply a means of moving economic power from here to there, as well as a reasonably efficient means of converting one form of power to another.

Yes, this is a seemingly selfish metric - but it also embraces the idea that every other donor has an equal right of concern, and has every right to different ideas of what their fraction of donated power should be used for, as well as recognition that individuals can and do differ remarkably on what they consider to be just compensation. It's also a recognition of reality - that nobody can afford to be altruistic at the expense of their own survival, much less the survival of the people and ideals they most value.

Therefore, any government that expects people to avoid the shortest path between need and gratification had best make the detour worthwhile - and what those in power think about those who would otherwise take the shortest path is immaterial. No amounts of "shoulds and shouldents" and no amount of laws passed in the name of those moral imperatives will change that behavior, nor will those laws ensnare those who are neither unlucky nor unintelligent in their mindful and willful refusal to comply.

Should I dislike the outcome of the balance of all the competing interests government must serve - or the performance based on promises - I have the right to either delegate another representative, or wield my power in my own name - just as I can choose to, say, self-insure against the possibility of a disastrous flood.

Whether or not that's a prudent choice depends a great deal on where you live and how much you have at stake - and the various social priorities and choices made by various states clearly illustrates that. The necessity to reasonably govern the population you have - rather than the population you wish you had - is the reason the Constitution places the states ahead of the Fed. It's not so much that a strong central government should not exist, it's rather that it cannot exist without inherently violating and suppressing entirely legitimate local interests. By restricting it's scope to those things that were clearly of overriding common concern, the Founders hoped to avoid our exact current situation.

However, in rediscovering this essential principle, our noses are rubbed in things that are of overriding common concern that can be addressed centrally, and indeed, probably can only be addressed centrally in any sort of cost-effective way and without serious impacts on essential liberties such as freedom of movement. I am speaking, of course, of social safety-net issues such as universal access to health care.

The issue of "who pays" is not nearly so critical as the idea that everyone, no matter who, no matter what their circumstances is able to access health-care at need, long before it becomes a matter of critical and unavoidable urgency, in recognition of the fact that what happens to individuals who do not have health care actually and unavoidably affects everyone in their community - via disease, bankruptcy, loss of productivity, loss of disposable income and even in loss of community participation. Nor should the systemic cost of widespread stress on the productivity and health of the population be discounted. It has a cost that can only be roughly estimated, but in any estimation has to be "very, very large."

My view is that a government that makes it easier to make wise choices, and which makes a broader range of choices meaningfully available to people is doing it's job. When it starts making choices on my behalf and trying to enforce them against MY judgment, it has become my adversary.

At that point I don't much care what the ideology behind it's choices are - once it's intruded into my life without invitation or compensation, it's excuses for doing so are meaningless. Because by definition, such blanket choices will be at the expense of many who will not benefit from them and may actually be harmed by them, far out of proportion to individual or collective gains.

That is where the abuse of power starts; when government becomes insensitive to the wishes, desires and even the guiding ethos of those it governs. When it demonstrates active contempt for entire swaths of the population, "choosing sides," as it were, it's not only just for those so abused to withdraw their consent, it's pretty much inevitable.

Therefore, open contempt for the electorate is a pretty sure signpost to the end of a dynasty. And any dynasty - and the Bushes surely consider themselves a dynasty - that thinks they can govern without the consent of a majority, much less at the expense of a majority, is not long for this world.

It's apparent that one reason eight prosecutors were fired is because that, despite having identified themselves as Republicans, they nonetheless were willing to enforce the law without regard to the political advantage of fellow Republicans, at the expense of the interests of districts they were appointed to guard and serve.

The really stunning part of this is that those advocating even more widespread firings - such as Harriet Myers - seem to be honestly blind to the inherent corruption contained in the idea. It's as if the core support of the Bush Administration sees everything in terms of partisan advantage, every program, every policy, every agenda, every word - and none of it needs have any real purpose or indeed, achieve anything more than a momentary positive blip in the polls to be legitimate.

This behavior is - aside from being probably illegal, certainly irresponsible and absolutely wrong - is a clear symptom of cancerous self-delusion permeating the entire administration, a delusion that leads them to overvalue their own judgment, not realizing how badly their addiction to unchecked power has effected it. Those who use power wisely and well do so in full understanding of and in service to the legitimate needs of those they serve, and do not confuse legitimate needs with popular whims, which if served at all, are served in small portions as dessert.

But this government does not serve, it alternately panders and bullies; expressing in it's governance the inability of those holding power to govern themselves or even casually adhere in their own lives to the values they would impose by fiat on the rest of us.

But at some point, they will find themselves in the dock, and the judge and jury will not be impressed by the argument that being drunk on power justifies the casual horrors committed in the name of being drunk at the wheel of an entire nation.

Illustration Credits:

courtesy of Totally Wrong T-Shirts.

courtesy of CynicalBlack

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